If living with a pandemic for the better part of a year has done anything, it has exposed serious shortcomings in our social fabric.

Here’s one more, courtesy of Idaho Education News’ Sami Edge. As she reported on Monday, 11,600 Idaho children who were supposed to show up for school this fall did not. That’s nearly double the typical number of “no shows.”

Where did they go?

Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

Under the best of circumstances, these children are being homeschooled by parents who take the job seriously and do it well. Maybe they’re attending a private school. Or they’ve moved to another state and Idaho simply lost track of them.

But under the worst case scenario, some of these young people are at home, taking care of younger siblings while their parents work. Maybe they’ve given up on school, perhaps for a job.

“There’s a lot of worries if we can’t run down a student,” West Middle School Principal Chance Whitmore of Nampa told Edge. “Is the kid safe and warm and being fed? Are they getting educated? ... Those are your hopes, but until you can confirm, you just don’t know.”

Welcome to a place that puts all of its faith in parents to do the right thing, but has little to say about it if they don’t.

As Edge noted, Idaho is among 11 states where a parent is under no obligation to notify authorities about pulling her child from a traditional school and teaching at home. Unlike many homeschooling states, Idaho has no requirement to demonstrate whether children are actually being taught standard mathematics or conspiracy theories or whether they are spending five hours a day at their studies — or five minutes.

There was a time when Idaho law gave local school districts authority to determine if a homeschooled student was being taught what passed for conventional curriculum and for the appropriate amount of time. But after a Payette family was held in contempt of court after openly defying the standard in the 1990s, Idaho legislators neutered the law. Lobbying by Idaho’s homeschoolers combined with Idaho’s laissez-faire traditions persuaded an increasingly anti-authoritarian strain of lawmakers to never revisit that choice.

State truancy laws authorize local schools to track and discipline students after they enroll in class. But when it comes to students who simply fail to appear at the start of the year, there’s another gap in the law.

Of course, there are plenty of incentives — such as genuine concern about a child’s well-being to the financial realities that provide state dollars based on enrollment — for local schools to find out where the “no-shows” are. To their credit, school administrators frequently make home visits. Or it could be a school resource officer. Or even a social worker who checks up.

But they’re under no state imperative to do any of that. Nor are school districts under a strict requirement to refer the case to the State Department of Education or anyone else to pursue it.

By comparison, Oregon requires school officials to attempt on at least a weekly basis to contact no-show students or their families. Wyoming law instructs local schools to appoint “attendance officers” to investigate circumstances surrounding absences that are unexplained.

COVID-19 “really has highlighted that we don’t have mechanisms in place, whether in a system for the state or a local protocol, outside of what (districts) have done year to year,” State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield told Edge. “If we’re looking for positives during this pandemic, this really opens up a discussion on: Where are students year to year? Students that don’t come back — why is that?”

If you didn’t know better, you’d think Idaho repealed its compulsory education law. Not so. It remains on the books and it applies to children ages 7 to 16.

The concept is fairly simple: Every child has a right to an education. Society depends on an educated citizenry. All of which would suggest no parent has the right to stand in the way.

But until the state’s elected leadership is willing to enforce that standard, some of Idaho’s children will continue falling through the cracks. — M.T.

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